[13 April 2009]
“Afro-Peruvians listen to samba or reggae or blues,” says Grimaldo del Solar, one-quarter of Peruvian electronistas Novalima. “These are communities living outside their traditions of music. Even the instruments—donkey bones, and jaws, and wood—are isolated from a lot of the culture. For us, it’s a hidden treasure that nobody has touched for many years. We had the chance to come in with some reggae, some rock, and add to it.”
Add to it they did. While Novalima’s digital self-titled “debut”—it was a “black market” release, burned and passed around to friends at first—remains their finest album to date by some of Peru’s hardcore fans, it was the internationally acclaimed Afro, which reinterpreted old African slave songs in a modern, electronic context, that garnered them worldwide acclaim. When their third full-length, Coba Coba, recently dropped, audiences in New York City were delighted to have the band visit SOB’s on their first (and thus far only) American show to date.
It had been a harrowing experience by the time I met up with the band. After they were held up for hours at JFK Airport in Queens with Visa problems, following an overnight flight from Lima, the band had to dazzle a packed Tribeca club, before boarding another flight the next morning to perform in Europe. It was one of those exotic-sounding itineraries romanticized by everyone except the band members who have to live it.
An hour before the show I’m in the basement with the four founding members: del Solar, Ramon Perez Prieto, Carlos Li Carrillo, and Rafael Morales. They’re drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes, tired but excited, faces flush with lack of sleep, though still buoyant and vibrant for their first American appearance.
I first came across Novalima when stumbling upon an advanced copy of Afro, instantly drawn in by the sparse “Chinchivi”, a song which remains at the top of my list of favorites of their three records. Credit Milagros Guerrero for seducing my ears; she is a big part of the reason the four band members reunited.
Friends and band mates since high school, they all moved to different countries; Novalima was made via emails and zip files. Collaborating with Guerrero and fellow vocalist Juan Medrano-Cotito made the band realize they needed to be in Lima. It was a circuitous route: they began on stage, turned to the studio to create their craft, returning to performance to reinterpret what they created on the computer.
“After our first album, we started building our relationships with Milagros and Juan, as well as other Peruvian musicians,” says Morales. “We knew we had a very strong lean towards the Afro-Peruvian sound. That’s when we decided to put out Afro.”
“The interesting part for us,” continues Prieto, “is not just that we are taking this music and adding our own modern influences with it. Since we are playing with these other musicians, it’s coming out with a very Afro-Peruvian sound.”
Normally a nine-piece band, they arrived to New York with eight, including both vocalists, who helped lead the charge during this electrifying show. Their sound is eclectic, although the roots are in the Afro-Latin tradition; that much is clear. Shades of reggae emerge, especially on a dubby track like “Ruperta/Puede Ser.”
“Since we were all living in different countries,” Carrillo says, “we started listening to every kind of music—to tango and African, to jazz and salsa. Within that context, we were mixing our own influences, and the common ground we shared was the Afro-Peruvian sound. When we look back we can trace it all, but when it happened, it just came in front of our eyes and we couldn’t see anything else.”
For the record, Coba Coba is slightly more globally influenced than Afro, reminding one of a more mature version of their debut. It also has a fuller, performance-oriented feel, less digital and more analog. This is due to their three years of playing and touring together; one is hard put to notice many shades of ProTools at all, whereas the beats on Afro were clearly studio enhanced.
Gaining awareness of both arenas has, over time, made these four men tremendously knowledgeable about the subtleties and intricacies of sound, as well as its effects on the listener. For the most part, however, this self-professed “party band” is best when making you dance, not to mention keeping it sexy; “African Landu” would even make Sade blush.
Beyond the partying aspect, however, lies a deeper awareness of the important legacy of their culture’s folk tradition. It would be like Americans revisiting the works of Woody Guthrie and creating bass-heavy dance floor versions. Obviously, the Afro-Peruvian tradition already has drums; the main instrument is the cajon, a percussive instrument originally made out of the crates that slaves would carry their belongings inside. Like American folk, the majority of listeners are of the older generations; Novalima helped bring these songs out of the vaults and into the modern consciousness.
“In Peru, most people have a relationship to these songs in the traditional way,” Prieto says. “After a few months, people started embracing it more and more. We’ve sold more than 10,000 albums there, which in Peru is a lot. Afro-Peruvian folk music already has a beat, which lends itself to electronica. That’s African music.”
Morales rolls off this sentiment: “In Peru, the thing about Afro and now Coba Coba, is that we’ve helped bring this folk music to younger audiences, whereas they wouldn’t have heard before in the traditional sense. In that way, I figure that’s made a positive impact on the culture, because we are listening to our own stuff, you know? It’s been there all the time, but they did not appreciate it—they were looking outside the culture.”